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Neighbors Tussle With Preschool

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Pasadena neighborhood looks like the set of “Leave It to Beaver"--rambling old bungalows, big camphor trees. But as is always the case with suburbia, there’s more going on than immediately meets the eye.

Beyond the emerald lawns and neat porches, beneath the magnolias and palms, the community around Euclid Avenue is being torn apart, and by the most unlikely of civic pests: an 83-year-old nursery school that, by the letter of the city law, has 15 potty-trained preschoolers too many.

In what city officials say is one of the more heated and unusual land use disputes in recent memory, the question of whether to let Aria Montessori School increase its enrollment to 80 from 65 has burgeoned into a petition-passing, lawyer-involved brouhaha.

In one corner are the proponents of the venerable institution, a Craftsman bungalow that has been a nursery school for so long that it boasts Julia Child as an alumna. In the other are the neighbors who are fed up with the shrieking and chattering that emanates from the playground each recess, and the twice-daily cavalcade of vans and Volvos that turn their curbsides into child-loading zones.

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The issue, simmering for generations but brought to a head within the past few years, is scheduled to come to a public zoning hearing tonight, although no one expects that to be the end of it.

To date, city officials say, the dispute has generated 400 letters, two petitions, countless phone calls, threats of litigation, an informal photo surveillance campaign and dire warnings that the wrong decision, either way, could mean the death either of one of Pasadena’s most coveted neighborhoods or of one of its oldest nursery schools.

“I’ve never had a case like this,” said Lola Osborne, the Pasadena city planner assigned to the dispute. “I mean, we’ve had property issues with a lot of opposition, but never involving what we call a ‘friendly use.’ I mean, this is a day-care center.”

“It’s an incredible little tempest in a teapot,” said John Kobara, a vice chancellor at UCLA who has one child at Aria and another on the two-year waiting list. At the same time, he added, “It’s sort of a classic property rights debate.”

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The school itself has been part of the neighborhood for almost as long as there has been a neighborhood at all. Run out of a tidy Craftsman home on a street of tidy Craftsman homes, it has been in business since 1913, said owner JoAnn Aria.

Until the 1960s, neighbors say, the school was a low-key place with only a few dozen preschoolers. By the 1980s, however, enrollment had burgeoned and neighbors began to complain. When the school petitioned the city for permission to increase its student body, the neighbors balked and the school was told it could have only 65 students at a time.

Years passed without incident. Then, four years ago, the Holmeses--John, Kelley and dog Rosebud--moved into a $525,000, three-bedroom bungalow on Magnolia Avenue whose backyard abuts the Aria playground. As John Holmes, an attorney, tells it, that was when things began to unravel.

“At the time, the school was required to have a 10-foot fence, which they didn’t have,” Holmes said. “They had a 6-foot fence that allowed the kids to taunt our dog.”

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One day, he said, part of the fence came loose and a child reached into their backyard. “That concerned us, because we weren’t sure how the dog was going to react to the kids, but the school was dismissive of our complaint.”

Holmes said he decided to check the records to find out whether the fence was his responsibility or the school’s, and was surprised to learn that the fence was too low.

“The deeper you dug,” he said, “the more you found out.” And among the discoveries, he said, was the fact that even though the city had capped the school’s enrollment, there were actually more like 80 youngsters at Aria.

The revelation formed the crux of an escalating dispute among the school and school parents, the city and disgruntled residents. The city inquired. The school applied for permission to increase its enrollment. The neighbors coalesced, calling themselves the Concerned Neighbors Committee. The school warned parents that, if enrollment were to be decreased (it now stands at 71), the school would lose so much money that its operation would be untenable.

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Parents papered the city with letters. The Concerned Neighbors showed up at public hearings wearing buttons that said “Pasadena Voters,” so City Hall wouldn’t forget. City engineers studied the place and found no problems with traffic and noise.

The neighbors began reporting every disturbance--even the noise from the truck that delivered the children’s milk--and hit the streets with cameras, photographing the lines of car-poolers to prove their case. A zoning officer told the school 80 children would be OK, if they added two parking spaces. The neighbors appealed. What about the fire lane? they asked. The neighbors hired a lawyer. So did the school.

“Their favorite phrase is, ‘The joyful happy sound of children at play,’ ” Holmes said. “But the reality is, this is a dense use in a low-density neighborhood.”

The school, meanwhile, is equally adamant. “We don’t intend to give up,” said JoAnn Aria, the owner. “It’ll be interesting to see where the city draws the line.”

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